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UJ students and staff march to end outsourcing

At a time when two of the country’s universities have just yielded to students’ protest against outsourcing, campus cleaners at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are embroiled in what they say is an unfair labour practice. 

This has added fuel to students’ protest against outsourcing at the institution. Following a day-long peaceful march on Monday of about 200, almost 50 students and workers occupied a floor in Madibeng; an administrative building that also houses vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg’s office on Kingsway campus. 

Cleaners the university is outsourcing from Elite, a private cleaning company, are up in arms after learning the company has been sold. The workers have been transferred to the new company, Servest. 

The workers are furious because this transfer happened without their knowledge. It has left them in the dark about new terms of employment and their provident fund, among other things. 

Part of workers’ demands during the protest on Monday was an immediate release of their provident funds. Officials of the NBC Provident Fund, which administers the UJ cleaners’ funds, arrived to address the protesting workers and sought to assure them that their money was not affected by the change of employers. 

Ernest Chidi, a campus cleaner, told the Mail & Guardian that they only learned last week that they are no longer employees of Elite. “We first heard rumours that Elite was being sold and we’ll be moved. 

“We only confirmed this on the 29th of October when we got our pay slips. They came with that notice, which said as from the 1st of November we’re going to work under Servest. We’re still waiting for them to introduce the new employer.

“As things stand, John [Simpson], the managing director of Elite, has transferred us to a new employer without proper notice. He never spoke to us that we’d be employees of a new company. 

“We’re going to work for a company we totally do not know. Where are we going to make demands as employees?”

Addressing workers demanding answers, Simpson said he would work with them to clarify provident funds issues.  “It is not in Elite’s control to get that (provident funds) money. But with regards to going forward, I urge you to work with us. 

“We’ve all worked very well for many, many years. There are a couple of people here that are leading you astray. We have all worked nicely and always been a good company to our staff. We’ve always been ethical, we’ve always paid the right rates.”

But a student challenged Simpson, interjecting with a question: “how much are they earning?” 

After contestation on an answer, Simpson said they earned R2 600 a month. “Is that the right amount to you?’ asked the student. 

“I don’t know,” Simpson retorted, and left the workers. “I’m out of here.”

But the marching cleaners and students were clear their main demand is the abolishment of outsourcing at UJ. The university should employ the cleaners and other support workers directly. 

Outsourcing has been a thorny issue for many years at the country’s universities. A practice many believe is immoral and exploitative, it also fuelled the #FeesMustFall protests. 

Protests at the University of Cape Town and Wits University only ended after management at the institutions agreed to abolish outsourcing.  

Chidi said: “Beyond this issue of being transferred without notice, we’re protesting because we want UJ to insource the workers. We’re mobilising more workers to deal with this issue of outsourcing. 

“The main problem here on campus is that the vice-chancellor doesn’t come to address students or workers.”

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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